Fort Worth — On Friday, Robert Spano, Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, was named Principal Guest Conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony; he’ll be conducting two programs in each of the three seasons beginning with 2020-21. He is also this weekend’s guest conductor, and judging from the orchestra’s performance under his baton, the decision to bring him around more often is a spectacularly good one.
For this was an orchestra at the top of its game. Imprecision in ensemble and tuning have been the bugbears of this group, but somehow these problems were greatly minimized under Spano. Perhaps it was his preparation of the orchestra, and perhaps it was their response to him. But whatever has happened, it works.
The program was an ambitious one: Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with soprano Jessica Rivera, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. These Strauss songs, written the year before his death, are peaceful meditations on mortality. They require incredible subtlety from the large orchestra, so as not to cover the lone soprano. Friday night, this need for subtlety was especially evident—Jessica Rivera’s voice is in many ways ideal for this repertoire, in both range and timbre, but her sound in Bass Hall was not huge. Still, the orchestra mostly stayed out of her way. Concertmaster Michael Shih’s rich, cantabile solo in the third song, “Beim Schlafengehn,” was flawless. I only wish that Rivera could have done without reading from printed music; her connection to the orchestra and the audience might have been better without it.
The Mahler, a 70-minute musical marathon, was even better than the Strauss. Famously, the symphony begins with a lone trumpet, and it is this crucial solo that sets expectations for all that will follow. On Friday, Principal Trumpet Kyle Sherman set very high expectations, indeed, with crystalline tone, flawless breath control, and thoughtful phrasing. The rest of the orchestra seemed to take its cue from Sherman’s work. Principal Horn Molly Norcross performed ably in her critical solos in the Mahler’s third movement Scherzo. The famous fourth movement Adagietto, scored only for strings and harp, was clean and lovely, with solid intonation and tight ensemble, although it would have benefitted from more attention to dynamics—the louds were plenty loud enough, but the softs weren’t soft enough to create sufficient contrast and drama. Still, this was sublime music, well-played. Similarly, perhaps Spano could have done more to emphasize the remarkable counterpoint that characterizes the fifth and final movement.
On the whole, my quibbles are minor ones. I haven’t heard this orchestra playing at this level in a few years; here’s hoping that each of Robert Spano’s outings with the orchestra will be as good.